The character I'm talking about is Fred Vincy, whose "plan" to pay off a loan guaranteed by a good old friend has failed. Early in Chapter 23, George Eliot explains that Fred's confidence in the funds' materializing is based only on his sense of how the world--his world--does and should operate:
Addressing us--"You"--at the beginning of her sentence, Eliot invites us to join her in mocking Fred's vanity and sense of entitlement. It's inconceivable to Fred that his disagreeable troubles won't be displaced by "agreeable issues" because he's such an agreeable fellow, as anyone who'd taken note of his habiliments would immediately discern.
"You will hardly demand that his confidence should have a basis in external facts; such confidence, we know, is something less coarse and materialistic: it is a comfortable disposition leading us to expect that the wisdom of providence or the folly of our friends, the mysteries of luck or the still greater mystery of our high individual value in the universe, will bring about agreeable issues, such as are consistent with our good taste in costume, and our general preference for the best style of thing" (229*).
When One Door Closes Another Opens**
|A Fashionable Man of Fred Vincy's Time***|
When the good fortune Fred expects fails to materialize, he chooses simply to default on his obligation to Garth rather than to put himself in the disagreeable position of asking the funds of either his father or his uncle, both men of greater means and less kindness. Fred's irresponsibility causes exceeding economic hardship for the Garth family: Garth's son Alfred's apprenticeship school tuition must be sacrificed, his daughter Mary's savings seriously depleted, and the family's plans for Christmas drastically scaled back.
To Fred's credit, he finally gets that he's causing harm--at least for a moment:
Principle divorced from compassion: though I know I've seen this in action, I've tended not to define the problem in this way. So-called principle that storms ahead righteously without regard for victimizing cause and effect--that was something I was more accustomed to recognizing and articulating to myself.
"Curiously enough, his pain in the affair beforehand had consisted almost entirely in the sense that he must seem dishonourable, and sink in the opinion of the Garths: he had not occupied himself with the inconvenience and possible injury that his breach might occasion them, for this exercise of the imagination on other people's needs is not common with hopeful young gentlemen. Indeed, we are most of us brought up in the notion that the highest motive for not doing a wrong is something irrespective of the beings who would suffer the wrong. But at this moment he suddenly saw himself as a pitiful rascal who was robbing two women of their savings" (248-9).
Parts of Two Juxtaposed Scott Ketcham Works
Unfortunately first lessons of cause and effect often don't undo a lifetime of entitlement and self-interest. When, in the next chapter, Fred traipses off to visit Mary Garth, whom he thinks about marrying, and proclaims that "'You can never forgive me," her retort makes clear what forgiveness lacks the power to do: "'What does it matter whether I forgive you? . . . Would that make it any better for my mother to lose the money she has been earning by lessons for four years, that she might send Alfred to Mr. Hamner's? Should you think all of that pleasant enough if I forgave you?'" (253).
When Fred continues to ask her to pity his misery--"'I am so miserable, Mary'"--she explains Fred to himself: "'But selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything else in the world: . . . They are always thinking of what they can get for themselves, and not of what other people may lose'" (254).
So why is Fred aggravating me so much? Frankly, because he is such a common character these days. I can think of so many stories I know--some mine, some others'--in which someone has really dropped the ball, bailed, or otherwise abandoned a friend or colleague who was depending on him/her--and then asked for that friend's or colleague's sympathy. If you're going to cancel out on someone for whose children you promised to babysit over the weekend, don't ask her to spend time comforting you when she could be looking for a babysitter to replace you!
Other examples of this "please forgive and think well of me" mentality are also consequential when justice and equality are at stake (which is always). When the problem is institutional racism, sometimes I've heard people say things like,**** "So you want me to talk to other white people about white privilege? Even to old friends who've already told me they don't need to talk about racism because they've never thought or said or done anything racist? That would be too uncomfortable. Especially if we were at their vacation house. You understand, right? And you don't think I'm any less committed to racial justice, do you?"
At the June meeting of the poetry reading group that meets monthly at the public library in Scituate, we read "The Achill Woman" by Eavan Boland. The poem contains a simile/image that's stayed on my mind since the meeting: late in the afternoon, having set down the pail of water she's just hauled up a hill, a servant woman bends down to hands distinguished by their "cold rosiness," and "blew on them like broth." I can just see the curled fingers, the nearness of lips to hands, the warm breath in the air.
|Standing on a hill on Achill Island*****|
It's only the adult narrator who understands some of what her "raw from college" self "failed to comprehend" and was "oblivious to." That which feels spontaneous, mutual, and pleasurable to one person may feel civil and obligatory to another. The relative easiness of a seemingly "equal" back-and-forth between two people may mask differences in status and power that make "mutual" participation a required rather than voluntary act.
While both Fred Vincy and Boland's adult narrator recognize how their self-involvement put others in difficult positions, there's virtually no similarity between Fred Vincy and the narrator's twenty-one-year-old self: while she's aflame with purpose fueled by literature, the warm fire, and the country evening, he's calculating how he might parlay his charms into a life filled with light duties, ample distractions, and plentiful invitations to gatherings of "society."
There are many Fred Vincys out there, and many of them don't have a Mary Garth to tell them off--and then to be kind to them. But kindness, while laudable and important, can be stupid. Watch out, Mary Garth!
* Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Edited by Rosemary Ashton, Penguin Books, 2003.
** Nichols, C. (2014, July 15). When one door closes another opens [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.joi-ful.com/journal/2014/7/15/when-one-door-closes-another-opens [Note: Screen shot of the painting by Cathy Nichols on that page.]
*** Screen shot of http://www.fashion-era.com/english-costume/1820-1830-king-george-iv-hanover.htm: Fashion Era King George IV - 1820-1830 by Dion Clayton Calthrop byBy Pauline Weston Thomas for Fashion-Era.com.
**** This is a fabricated example based on a number of things I've heard in multiple conversations.
***** Screen shot of photo on the beaut. web site, page entitled "Smithwick's New Year Celebration on Achill Island": http://wwnorton.tumblr.com/post/22494224617/the-achill-woman